The Occupation of Alcatraz
On November 17, Julian Brave NoiseCat of Oakland and the Canin Lake Band Tsq’escen moderated a discussion at the Presidio Theatre between Dr. LaNada War Jack, a Shoshone-Bannock tribal member and a co-leader of the Alcatraz Occupation, and Eloy Martinez, a Ute descendant and original occupier.
The panel was the last in Alcatraz Canoe Journey’s four-part, citywide series commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Alcatraz Occupation, presented in partnership with Open Space’s fall magazine Alcatraz Is Not an Island, and a year-round series of events offered by the Presidio Trust exploring the multilayered history, nature, and culture of this unique place. The following is an edited version of a transcript of the event.
Julian Brave NoiseCat: Let’s give a round of applause to the Presidio Trust for letting Indians take over their theater for the day. [Applause] It’s not every day that white folks do that. The Alcatraz Canoe Journey also took on the name of the Occupied Canoe Family, and today, as at all the talks, we brought our talking stick, which is carved and painted in the form of a skipper’s paddle. It includes the crest of a canoe and a California condor, and that is the representation of our committee, who I am asking questions on behalf of, today. I think it’s also important to acknowledge, before we start, that we are in Yelamu, or what is now called San Francisco, the traditional territory of the Ramaytush Ohlone people.
The 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz was a historic, nineteen-month occupation of the former federal prison, led by a group of activists that took on the name of the Indians of All Tribes. In the same way that Montgomery, Alabama is viewed as the starting point of the Civil Rights Movement, Alcatraz Island was the launchpad for the current era of Native American rights and activism. Over 1.4 million people flock to Alcatraz every year to peer inside jail cells that once held notorious criminals like the Birdman and Al Capone, and where Native activists like Oakes and Eloy and LaNada once made their stand. But even here, in the diverse and progressive Bay Area, the Indians of All Tribes and the Occupation are, unfortunately, at best an afterthought. And we, I should add, are having this conversation because we want that to change.
With me to discuss this essential history and its enduring legacy, we have Dr. LaNada War Jack. LaNada is Shoshone-Bannock, and was a student leader from UC Berkeley during the Occupation. She’s been a tribal council woman, she served on the steering committee and executive committee of the Native American Rights Fund for over a decade, and has been a board member for so many organizations that I’m not even going to try to name them all. [Laughter] She holds a doctorate from Idaho State University, and is now the author of this wonderful book called Native Resistance. She’s also written a number of articles, she’s testified to Congress, she’s been an incredible intellectual and activist and leader among Native people everywhere, and I’m very proud to say that through this project, she’s become a friend and mentor and supporter of the Canoe Journey family and committee. Seated directly to my right is Eloy Martinez. Eloy is also a lifelong activist, and has been an Oakland resident for over fifty years. If you ask him, he might tell you that he’s a farmworker, but he’s been part of so many movements that matter, from the Occupation of Alcatraz to the United Farmworkers, to Standing Rock, to the anti-war movement, to Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and so much more. Eloy has been on the right side of history time and time again, but he’s always humble. He’s always got a twinkle in his eye — even when he’s got his shades on — and he’s always got a joke to tell. And he might have lived in Oakland for over fifty years, but he is sixteen years old. Before we get started, can we get a round of applause for Eloy and La Nada?
It’s a real honor and pleasure for me to watch over a conversation between two of our elders, two of the leaders and participants of the Occupation. To start, I wanted to ask both of you: Why does the occupation still matter in 2019?
LWJ: It matters because we’re still out there having to fight all the issues that have been coming up over the years. People are still fighting to defend sacred sites, like Bears Ears and Mauna Kea in Hawaii; we have a really high number of murdered and missing Indigenous women and men, but we don’t have any follow-up or investigations. We have the issue of migration, where a number of our people and our children have been separated from their families — and these aren’t migratory people, they’re Native people. In America, you call us Americans, although we’re Natives. In Mexico, they’re called Mexicans, but they’re Natives too, and we’re all linguistically related to each other, speaking the same languages. These are Indigenous families that are being separated, with their children taken away. Our lands are being taken away continuously, our water being polluted. We had the situation at Standing Rock, where the first order of business in this president’s administration was to allow the pipelines to continue. Our plants and our animals and everything dying daily because the laws are being relaxed. Our strongholds are in the urban areas now, where large populations of Native people live as a result of the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program, which I came out on fifty-plus years ago. So we need to continue to represent and talk about all of these issues, and try to get some help and support. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote my book; there’s a large history and there are things that take a while to explain, and we have had a huge media blackout when it comes to Native Americans.
JBN: And Eloy, you are sort of the OG in the Native and broader activist community here — at least in the Bay Area, if not beyond. What about the Alcatraz Occupation have you carried forward in your lifetime?
Eloy Martinez: Well I met Richard Oakes at a Vietnam rally in I think mid-’69, something around that area. His kids were playing with my son, and he came over and said, “Hey, can we have a sandwich?” My wife was raised in a children’s home, mistreated, and the kids were always hungry. So she always had this giant picnic basket she carried. And we had Indian food: baloney sandwiches, and cheese. Basically, we met over a baloney sandwich.
I always identified with the Chicano movement. In Colorado there was a lot of mestizos and they put you in that bracket. If you weren’t identified with the Chicano movement or the Indian movement, they labelled you as white. I think on my driver’s license I was labeled as white as late as 1962. That’s the way they counted you — for their purposes, not for yours. All that stuff is about injustice. I had made my way through the industrial schools — they’re called industrial schools but basically they’re reform schools in children’s homes.
To me it was like a really crazy idea when Richard said “We’re going to take Alcatraz,” and I said, “Geez, I don’t want to break into jail! Shit, I been there all my life!” [Laughter] Anyways, I got talked into it. But I wasn’t one of the principals. I was there for just the short amount of time that Richard Oakes was there.
Alcatraz was, for me, the idea of social justice, and I couldn’t pass it up. I also liked the idea that LaNada and Richard and all the rest of the people that led it were non-violent. I grew up with Corky Gonzales’s crew in Denver, it was called Crusade for Justice, and they were in-your-face people, and that didn’t work for them; I saw that they were one of the first people that got bombed and burned up in Colorado. When I came out here, I joined the farmworkers, more to support them but also to reinforce my need for non-violence. When I joined Alcatraz, that was where I was coming from, and like I say, I wasn’t there all the time. LaNada is one of the principal leaders, and she’s never been given all her credit, and I think it’s time that we should. It’s really time.
LWJ: Thank you.
EM: Alcatraz was the place to find social justice. You see people of like kind and you know that they’re thinking the same way you’re thinking — the original fourteen warriors, which John Whitefox and LaNada were part of, they were the real warriors, because they went out there not knowing what was going to happen to them. And you’ve got to remember that period, the Black Panthers and all this stuff that was happening — the police enforcement units were killing people, they were burning people up. So when they went out there, that showed a lot of courage. Because not knowing what’s going to happen to you is really scary. It was scary to me and I wasn’t even on the first run. I came on the fourth boat, I remember.
I didn’t go back until the late ’80s, when John Whitefox told me that they weren’t mentioning Indians of All Tribes anymore and it was becoming more of an AIM [American Indian Movement] scene. AIM never had anything to do with Indians of All Tribes, because AIM is not non-violent, and Indians of All Tribes always was non-violent and still is. And that’s the way we would like to keep it. We don’t need any more hate. We need to throw that love out there. We need to at least get it back on equal balance or keel, so we can deal with it. Because right now we can’t deal with it, let’s be honest.
JBN: So just to summarize: First, I think there’s obviously a pride in being Native that is part of the Occupation, right? This was a moment for Native people to really make a stand and really the first time that we were present on a national stage in the twentieth century, at least. There’s a commitment as well to social justice, which isn’t just contained at Alcatraz; both of you have lived a life that was committed to progress and justice for our people and for all people. And then there’s thirdly the non-violent aspect that Eloy brought up. The commitment to non-violent democratic organizing, was present at Alcatraz but then extended beyond that. I want to get into a little bit more of the actual story of Alcatraz, though, because it is quite a story. LaNada, as Eloy mentioned, you were one of the leaders from UC Berkeley. Could you tell us about how you got involved?
LWJ: I came out on relocation through the Bureau of Indian Affairs when I was eighteen. I was living in the Mission District and I noticed that the Black group had an organization that was sending students to the University of California, so I asked them if they could send me too. And they did. I became the very first Native American student at UC Berkeley, and I was able to recruit more Native Americans from around the Bay Area and California. Soon we had our own Native organization. Right about that time came the Third World strike, which was going on at San Francisco State at the same time [and fought to get us] the first departments of ethnic studies. It was probably the most violent strike on the UC Berkeley campus in the ’60s, but we stayed non-violent. It wasn’t us that brought the violence. They came out with the National Guard and unshielded bayonets, and they had helicopters and dropped pepper gas on campus. They stopped everything. We were able to go into negotiations after three months of our strike on campus; I guess it just really frightened everyone that Native people, Black people, Chicanos, and Asians, could all get together and work in unity for our own departments of ethnic studies. We had the support of all the white students as well, along with the professors and everybody. We were very successful in getting to establish our first department of Native American Studies, and with that set up at Berkeley, it went through the state immediately. Every University of California campus had Native American Studies as well as Chicano, Asian-, and African-American departments.
So we kind of had an instant set-up statewide with Native American students. And when we took Alcatraz, we didn’t have cell phones then. Gosh, I don’t know how we did that without cell phones. [Laughter] And we never took selfies either! I never had any pictures to show. But we did just get on the phone and call all the Native American Studies departments to show up. We didn’t know it was going to be nineteen months, but all the Native American Studies departments came and of course Richard and I were there, we had all our students together. It also became an international issue because Alcatraz was in international waters at that time. We had a lot of press. And we just tried to bring out the injustices, the broken treaties — that was why we took Alcatraz in the first place. Back in 1964 when the prison was first vacated, a Lakota landing party laid claim to Alcatraz based upon their 1868 treaty, which stipulated in part that federal surplus property would go back to the Native people. And yet in 1969 Lamar Hunt was going to develop it for a casino. To us it was like, “oh my gosh, another broken treaty.” Because every single treaty was broken anyway. There were five hundred broken treaties, and to us that was just such an injustice that we had to do something about it. Over the years, I’ve heard all these stories about everybody that took the island, and I never really said what actually happened, so that’s why I thought, “Gosh, it’s fifty years. I better write my book.” The day that we picked to take the island was on November 20 because we knew our leaders were going to be out of town attending a conference. And so we thought that would be a perfect time to take it. [Laughter] Then, of course, they all claimed that they did it and they planned it and everything. Adam Nordwall, who was a Bay Area businessman, did do a publicity stunt to take a boat around the island. But that was it, it was just that publicity stunt — and then Richard jumping in the water, trying to swim to the island from that boat. It was just like, “Oh my god, Richard.” That’s so dangerous!
JBN: Can you actually tell us that story? Because it’s a very good story.
LWJ: We were on the boat for Adam Nordwall’s publicity stunt to go around the island, and Richard Oakes and a couple of the other students jumped off the boat when they thought it was at the closest point to Alcatraz, and tried to swim. But nobody was really in shape to make that swim, and the Coast Guard had to go over there and pick them up. We went back to the Indian Center after we got to the mainland, and we said, “Okay, we’ll just go do it. We’ll meet down to the docks, and the next day, the rest of the students can let the press know that we’re out there.” They were planning to come to the island to join us. So we went down to Fisherman’s Wharf and the boats were coming in with the fishermen bringing the catch of the day. I asked one of those guys if he could take us out to Alcatraz. And he said, “Sure, but where’s your provisions? Don’t you have anything that you’re taking with you? Is this part of what happened earlier today?” I said, “Well, kind of. But we’re just going to go out there and do a ceremony.” He said, “Well, don’t you have any water or food?” We didn’t even bring any water or anything. I said, “No, it’s a fast.” [Laughter] Because in my tribe, we always do fasts, you know, and that’s like four days — no food, no water. So we got in the boat and we’re waiting and waiting for Richard. And he was caught in traffic. We didn’t have any cell phones to check on each other. No smoke signals. Finally the ice on the fish that they brought in was really melting and they had to get that fish in. So I said, “Okay, let’s go then.” We left the harbor and I looked back and I could see little silhouettes of legs running. So I said, “Ah, that’s Richard.” We turned around. They picked up Richard and several of the San Francisco State students, and then we went out to the island. They dropped us off and then we were just hiding out there all night long. And they had Coast Guard and helicopters with lights and everything going all over the island — it was almost like playing hide and seek. I mean you know, we’re facing danger but we were just like, really light about it. Because when you’re young, you have no fear. You’re not worried about what you’re going to do next or where you’re going to sleep or anything. And then in the morning, the Coast Guard came and they had all the media and press on their boat. Richard jumped out and said that we would give ourselves up and go back to the mainland; he just wanted to read his declaration, which I guess he had gotten from Adam Nordwall. So he read his declaration and gave us all up. When we got back to the mainland, the students got angry with us, because they were already getting boats ready to come out and join us. So I said, “Well we can go back again. They’re not going to expect that we would do this.” [Laughter] And so we did. And the rest is history.
JBN: The rest is definitely history. It’s a wonderful story. Eloy, you have told me about the scene in Oakland at the time. You were living down the street from folks who were involved with the Black Panthers. I think everybody in the audience probably has some idea about the Bay Area in the ’60s. There was the student movement, the Chicano movement, the Black Panther Party, all of these different things. One of the more interesting parts of this story that gets left out of Alcatraz is its connection to the establishment of ethnic studies, which endures to this day. Not only did you guys take Alcatraz, but also you were part of the group that founded an entire academic discipline. Eloy, what was the scene in the Bay Area generally and Oakland specifically at that time?
EM: When I first came to Oakland, the recruitment policy for the police department was “go down south and get them big guys.” You know, with the red necks? There was no probable cause, if you were a person of color and they felt like they could beat you up, they did. They were doing that a lot with the Black Panthers and I think probably the biggest driver for the Panthers was when they killed young Bobby Hutton, who was sixteen years old. Everybody always associates the Black Panther Party with guns and stuff, in the capitol. They did that to get attention, just like we did when we took Alcatraz — you need that one thing that stands out. But nobody ever talks about the good things the Panthers did. The breakfast program, the kids programs, all the stuff they did in the communities. All they want to talk about is the violent part, and the violent part is not always caused by those organizations. It’s caused by provocateurs. They were on Alcatraz [the provocateurs]. They were the ones that burned Alcatraz down. At Occupy, they wore masks and were trying to break windows. They’re always around. One time during Occupy a bunch of kids blocked the freeway off, right there close to 40th Avenue in Oakland. And there was a highway patrolman up there that night running the kids off. So the following night, they were doing a demonstration at Frank Ogawa Plaza and this guy with a ski mask and a big skateboard came by, and he started whacking the windows. I was there with a couple of elderly women that I’d been on marches with. One of the kids says, “That’s him! That’s him!” And he ran up there and took the guy’s mask off, and it was that same highway patrolman from the night before. And he apologized. Same thing when they took the last people off Alcatraz. General Services Administration bulldozed all those buildings. They didn’t let nobody out there, no media, nothing. And then they told the public, “Come on, look what the Indians did.” We had nothing to do with it! But that’s the kind of stuff that’s always put on us. We spend all our time trying to prove that we’re not that, and it keeps us away from doing the important stuff. And the real issues are all happening right in front of you, caged kids and things like that. Probably a lot of people in this audience can go back in their own histories and remember who in their own families were caged and incarcerated and really, really, really horrible stuff. And yet nobody’s saying anything about that. That’s the stuff that I went to Alcatraz behind, and I’m going to get back on the street pretty soon again. I need to be, and I think a lot of other people need to be. Because change never comes from the top. It always comes from the bottom up. Right now, I’m really enthusiastic about the bottom up, because it’s all the students that are doing it themselves. It’s so awesome to see that. The other day a bunch of the original people that put the teepee up [on Alcatraz] in 1969 came back and put another teepee up. Robert Free put the first teepee there in 1969. But the backstory to that was, when he was fifteen years old, he was on the street. And Peter Coyote was part of the Diggers — I don’t know if anyone remembers the Diggers. I do. But I’m old.
JBN: I actually don’t know. What were the Diggers?
EM: They were a group of people dealing with injustices, one of the first progressive groups out there in the underground. Anyways, Peter Coyote, everyone knows who he is. He got a good spot up north somewhere and he had a teepee on the property. Robert Free asked him for it, and he said, “Yeah, you can have it.” So the first teepee out there was actually Peter Coyote’s teepee and Robert Free put it up. About two weeks ago, Robert Free, Peter Coyote, Peter Bratt, and a bunch of other people came back and brought another teepee, like fifty years ago. Everyone that carried the poles up there were kids and young adults, that next generation. Eventually, what we would like to do is get enough public support so that becomes part of a permanent monument and a museum out there. Because the park service says that anything that is there — when it is done — has to stay, they have to preserve it for history. I go out on the island and I see these giant cannons, and I see these big cannonballs, and I see all that Civil War stuff, and we got a little-bitty room that’s about this big. All that killing stuff is out there really prominent. I’m thinking that we should have that same right to have our part of that museum.
The park service started a visioning program in 2016 and they told me they wanted to create a park between 2016 and 2026. They had a big gathering with ten tables, six people to a table, and every table had some kind of subject. But they all wanted to talk about the Civil War or the prisons. I didn’t want to talk about that. I wanted to talk about Indian issues. I got up and I said, “Look, I need to get up. I can’t sit for a long time. Can I go to all these other tables?” They said, “Sure.” So I was able to influence each one of those tables. After the voting they determined they were going to concentrate on two things: the prison, because it was there, and the Occupation, because it’s never happened anywhere else. So now they’re leaning more and more toward us. But over the years they whitewashed everything; you can’t see nothing about the Indian Occupation. In 2011, I think, they reinforced the water tower, sandblasted it down, put epoxy, primer, and all this stuff on there. They gave me ten days to get people that were the original painters, so we organized a total of seventeen people, including about half of the original painters, Richard Oakes’ grandson, Richard Oakes’ daughter, and myself. Since then, we’ve been putting all these other paintings back. The interesting thing about the water tower itself — before we painted it — was they couldn’t figure out how to put the letters back. But when we got back there to actually paint it, the sun was hitting just right, because of that lead paint that we had used those years way back, it had etched into the metal and it came right back out. It was like, wow! And those letters were pretty much the same. That was without any interference of high tech and all that other stuff. Before that, it was all graffiti. Over the years, we’ve all been able to talk to people out there and tell them, hey, this is ours, that’s a statement, that’s not graffiti. So now all the docents and all the people out there refer to it like that. They’re telling the real history. We’re able to bring people out there that are actual Native people from different tribes to speak in all languages and tell their people about their histories there. Not out of the government’s books, not out of the US history books — as you know, Trump thinks he’s the inventor of fake news, but that started in 1492. And on November 20 we’re all going to be there, the Natives, all of us, including most of them that did the original painting, which is really going to be awesome. We’re going to get to paint that sign right in the front, where you get off the boat. It says “penitentiary” now, but we’re going to cross it out all over again, make it “Indian land.”
And LaNada is putting it right on the line and telling it like it was. A lot of the other books are somebody else’s perspective and from people that weren’t even on the island. She knows stuff that nobody else knows. So feel free to ask all the questions you want to know. But better yet, buy her book. [Laughter]
JBN: Yeah, you should definitely buy LaNada’s book. Eloy, there was a lot in what you just said, but in particular I’m curious: What was so inspiring about Alcatraz, that the children of some of the occupiers went and painted the political statements back onto the island? And there’s a sunrise ceremony there every year. It is this very important and powerful moment in our history that has stayed in this community and the Native community more broadly in a way that not everything does. So what was it that was so special about Alcatraz that has made it last?
LW: It was a spiritual reawakening of our culture and our languages. It was a way to reconnect with our people because the government passed laws to make our languages, our ceremonies, our songs, our prayers — everything that we did, they made it illegal. When we took Alcatraz — and we didn’t actually realize this ourselves until later — it initiated the spark of re-identifying as Native people. We were being assimilated so rapidly— the government put our children into Christian and government boarding schools, so the generations before us were separated from their cultural base. With my generation, they were going to just put us in the cities and let us assimilate into mainstream American society. And that’s why I think Alcatraz was special — it just went nationwide, and then it went worldwide. I mean, I heard people from the Philippines saying, “Oh, the Indians are fighting back, we’re going to have to keep standing up and resisting and fighting.” And they did. You know, we were just wanting to take our land back. Nobody really knew what it was to be Native. But they wanted to re-identify. So that was the first step. Then you want to know your ceremonies and your songs and your languages. We had no idea it was going to be the way that it happened, or that President Nixon was going to support us — and he did! He did his first White House address on Native American policy. Everybody hated him, but he did the White House policy on Native Americans, which was very supportive. Then he started doubling and tripling the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ budget and Indian Health Service budget, and initiating policy that would be supportive of our tribes out on the reservations. It was at such a critical point prior to that; our people had been living in poverty, coupled with that cycle of dysfunction initiated through the government and Christian boarding schools, where our children had been physically harmed and mentally, spiritually, and even sexually abused.
We were doing really well after the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, where they put us under the federal system and the federal corporations. They were bringing out cattle and trying to domesticate us and make us into farmers. But then we went through that Depression and everybody got jealous that the Indians had all this land and had cattle and farms, and that’s what initiated the Termination Era, was to take all these things away. So that’s what we were coming out of: the Indian Land Claims Act, where they were legitimizing the largest land steals and the termination policy itself, Public Law 280, where they had taken the whole state of California — for one — and put it under state jurisdiction. There was also Oregon, Washington, Minnesota. They completely terminated 106 tribes at that time; the rest of the tribes were at the mercy of the state and the state was not very nice to Native people. They just wanted the land. Most Americans thought that that land was their land. They didn’t have a history of how it was taken through the genocide and the boarding schools and the prisoner work camps called reservations. I would see movies about Indians being alcoholics on the reservation. But there was nothing to tell how we got to that point. And that’s when I thought that it was really important to describe what had happened — why our people were becoming alcoholics and we had teen suicide out at Fort Hall in 1968 which was ten times the national average. If you follow the history, which has never really been written about — and if it is, it’s coming from the colonizers’ point of view — then there’s never been any really truth in history. That was one of the reasons we wanted to establish Native American studies, so that we could tell the truth in history. But of course they all whitewashed that and we still don’t have the true histories. What happened in California is just horrible, for example, how the California Indians were slaughtered and the genocide that they faced. Then they had one Indian left and his name was Ishi, and they put him over at the University of California museum. You know, it’s crazy, but my dad says, “You see an ant pile and somebody’s going to go over there and kick it or try to burn it or get rid of all those ants, I don’t know why. But they’re going to do that. And then you’ll see all these little ants running away.” He says, “That’s who we are. We came from that. It was all those little ones that got away and this is our generation.” Now we’re trying to continue to survive. There’s only one percent — if there is one percent — of Native American people left. We don’t have that big political bloc and we really depend on American society to be supportive and to understand and to know, and there’s nothing written about it. We don’t have any media attention.
The Canoe Journey was awesome, Julian. You know, all the tribes from Washington State all came to recognize Alcatraz, and they were the tribes that were fighting for fishing rights at that time. Before Alcatraz there were a lot of tribes and people that were trying to bring recognition to the issues of broken treaties and had people like Marlon Brando and Dick Gregory recognizing them, but the United States never actually would honor those treaties where those tribes had their fishing rights. So right after Alcatraz, we started litigating that fishing rights issue and got the Boldt Decision, where Native people got half of that harvest. We continued with litigation for the past fifty years, with the Native American Rights Fund and other people starting organizations that were propelled throughout the government. More people were at more liberty to do things to help their people. We didn’t realize what a shot in the arm Alcatraz would be. We were just doing what we thought was right.
JBN: So, Eloy, I know that you’re only sixteen, but there’s been a lot of history in those sixteen years. You’ve both talked a little bit about stories that maybe are not as well-known about the Occupation. But I wanted to ask if you have an untold or lesser-known story about the Occupation that you wish was a little bit better understood.
EM: Well, I could tell you a story about John Whitefox, one of the original fourteen occupiers. He was also at IFH [Intertribal Friendship House] a lot. He became a toll-taker on the Bay Bridge in 1971, ’72 — he was an original FasTrak guy, but you had to be Native to get through the toll. [Laughter]
LWJ: I got through. John Whitefox’s booth was right there. [Laughter]
EM: Anyway, we were doing a documentary on Alcatraz — that’s when they first started doing documentaries on the occupiers. We were there for three days, talking and just carrying on. Some other people showed up on that Sunday afternoon and somebody said, “Hey, you know, there’s some occupiers out there.” I think it was Dennis Hastings and his wife or somebody. Anyway, they had the admiral flags and the American flag and the prison flag — all the flags, we turned them upside-down and took photos, and that was John Whitefox’s last act of insurrection. The next morning our friend Steve called me and told me, “Eloy, John’s gone.” And I said, “What, he’s gone to the island?” “No, he’s gone.” I said, “What do you mean, he’s gone?” He says, “His heart blew up.” So that was John’s last act of insurrection, turning that flag upside-down. I’ll never forget that.
All those things that happened on Alcatraz — that island is full of stories. After 1987, they had a guy on the fire asked me if I’d help him, and the next year, he asked me to take care of it by myself. So on Indigenous Day and Thanksgiving Day, I’m the guy beating the fire with a couple other young people that are learning how to do it. And they’re not only involved in the fire because it represents the warm place to be on a cold day on Alcatraz—they also learn respect. They go out there in the middle of the night before, they sweep so the all the kids can dance barefoot the next day in that cold. They set the fires up, they set up chairs for the elders, and they make sure the elders are warm. That’s the kind of kids that I want to see. If they watch what you do, I think they mimic you a lot. I had a really good example of that on the Canoe Journey. Two canoes went out and I stayed on shore, because I’m more of a horse guy, so. [Laughter] Anyway, I’m sitting on the canoe and I seen all this stuff on the beach. I had a couple bags in my car, and I started picking up trash. And some little kids were over there watching me and said, “What are you doing?” And I says, “You know how you’re enjoying the ocean?” And they say, “Yeah.” And I says, “I’m paying rent back to it. I’m going to make it kind of clean.” And them little kids jumped in and joined. Now, I go over there once or twice a week on Saturday or Sunday morning and take my little sack, and there’s a whole little crew that comes out there. That’s not a lot, but if everybody does that a little bit, you know? And the good part about it is, I didn’t have to tell these kids to do it. They’re just doing it because they’re seeing somebody else do it.
Ever since I got involved in Alcatraz, it’s always about education, not incarceration. I think that that’s what Alcatraz represents to me, because that is probably the hardest place that you could have been back there. Actually my uncle, when I was younger, used to always tell me I was going to end up with Al Capone. [Laughter]
JBN: And you did.
EM: I ended up in the same place.
JBN: So, LaNada, I think one part about this that I really want to draw out is that you were one of the leaders of the Occupation, and because of the patriarchy, and the way that the story is told and who was recognized as a leader, you were never recognized in the ways that you should have been. And so I was wondering firstly what parts of your story and the story of the Occupation do you think were hidden because of the patriarchy, and then secondly, how do we make sure that for the next fifty years, for the next generation, that we have equal representation of all genders and folks in our community and in our activism?
LWJ: Well I think we need to acknowledge that the patriarchy that we’re living under today is really just a hierarchy of oppression. It keeps forcing us to the very bottom of having any voice or any power to even contest those children being separated from their families. The fact that we can’t have a voice or do anything about that just shows the power of control that’s over us. The matriarchy is not under women, but it’s the balance of male and female working together. And that was how initially Richard and I were working together, was with a balance to take the island. We had a lot of leaders out there. We had leaders that were doing security, running the Big Rock School, cooking, getting the food to the top of the island so that we’d have something to cook. It was just a really well-functioning community that we had working together. The thing that isn’t being recognized to this very day is the balance of male and female, because this is our way of spirituality as well, to always work for the balance in anything, no matter what it is. And in our own way, with our prayers — people criticize us for talking about our spirituality, as do our own Native people. There are a lot of things that are being misused or mishandled or misrepresented. Everybody thinks that we’re just out there doing “hey-yah-hey” or whatever, but our songs and our ceremonies are so vital and important because your voice comes from your heart and your soul, and it comes out on sound that carries on light. It impacts the plants and the animals and the land and the people. That’s how we maintain the balance. That’s what it’s all about. We’re the only ones that can do that as human beings. That’s why it’s our responsibility to maintain that balance for the plants and animals, so that they can continue to live. And right now, we’re being faced with the destruction of plants, animals, water, the air, the land, the people, everything. So we have to try to understand that no matter what form of beliefs that we have, our prayers are that important, just to keep that balance of life. So that’s from my perspective as a Native person, and that’s why we do the sunrise ceremony. Because the sunrise is the most powerful. When we have sunrise ceremony, then the sun is coming up and we’re doing our prayers right at that time. And the first rays of the sun will pick up our prayers. It’s sound on light, and it goes directly to the sun. And as the Earth turns, then it comes back to Earth and it’s all positive. That’s how our prayers are carried worldwide. It can be done anywhere, it doesn’t have to be on Alcatraz. But it’s good to do it on Alcatraz because you have a lot of people there and it’s very strong and it’s very powerful.
JBN: So before we go to Q&A from our audience, it’s been fifty years since the Alcatraz Occupation. What is your hope for the next fifty?
LWJ: Well, my hope is that we can unite in our work. It’s always the young people who’re not afraid, that are going to have a voice, but we need to really support our young people, and try to make sure that they’re doing things in a good way. We could always advise, but you know, forty-seven years later, after Alcatraz, it was the young people that initiated the whole resistance at Standing Rock to protect the water. So I think we have a lot to look forward to in terms of supporting our young people and making sure that they understand about the balance.
EM: I like the fact that all the young people are getting involved. I’ve been working with a bunch of people, like Corrina Gould, at the sacred sites. They’re building an arbor over in East Oakland, a little nursery that started out as a place for people that have been incarcerated, don’t have to check that little yellow box to give them a job, give them training, give them a decent wage. The food that they produce they give to the people that can’t afford food. It’s been two hundred and fifty years since they had an Ohlone arbor anywhere in the Bay Area. And they did it from scratch: they went and cut the poles, dug the holes, cut the bark off the poles, did everything. It’s pretty awesome because a lot of the kids working there are into it, and they’re learning all that history — they got these things called Hügels, this big pile of dirt, and growing all the native plants, original healing plants that go way back. I don’t remember the names, but I remember the plant, because my grandma used to make me gather them when I was little. And they’re asking questions that need to be asked.
JBN: Well I just want to say that it’s been such an honor to know and learn from both of you. Thank you so much for being part of this conversation and this broader project. I’m sure that other folks would love to ask you guys some questions, so I believe we have two microphones set up at the front of the theater. But before we do that, can we give both Eloy and LaNada one more round of applause?
Q1: Hi, thank you for your great presentation. I wanted to ask Eloy a question about the Occupation and then the Occupy movement. You were in two Occupy movements at least. What similarities and differences did you see between the Occupy movement in 2011 and the Occupy Alcatraz movement?
EM: I think they were both dealing with a lot of the same issues. A lot of incarceration and all of the killing of people of color. That still hasn’t been resolved. Occupy was created [after] Oscar Grant[’s murder]. As long as we have those police forces that are entrenched from way back, nothing is going to change. And the first thing you’ve got to do is take all their guns away; get all the military equipment away from them. Why would they need these huge tanks? We saw them at Standing Rock, giant tanks with turrets that would kill a whole bunch of people right quick. All of those things are weapons of intimidation. They’re talking about making protests outlawed now where you’re going to have to have permits and to do all other kinds of stuff. I think before that happens people need to get out on the street again and say, “Hey, this has gone far enough. What’s up?” I’m glad to see all the young people getting out there and doing it. What I’m sad to say, is that there aren’t enough elders out there supporting those young people. All those elders should be out there right behind them saying, “Right on, kid. Right on, go for it. Let me help you out and do what we can.” Because there’s a lot of information that elder people have, that younger people don’t have, and they’re not going to ask us for advice, because we jacked everything up. I’m part of that generation that screwed shit up, you know? I didn’t do enough. As much as I did, I didn’t do enough. Because we’re living on their time, not ours. And I think that we should be a little more respectful and considerate of their time.
JBN: In the back?
Q2: I’m eighty-two going on twenty-five, and I wondered what you thought about something my good friend Dennis Banks said to me years ago: “We are the seventh generation.” I wondered what you thought about that?
LWJ: Well, I remember Dennis sent me a letter wanting to come out to the island when we were there and he brought his group, and they became a national organization maybe five years later. Then they went onto Wounded Knee after the Bureau of Indian Affairs takeover in DC. I told him at that time, I wish I would have been able to talk to them, but I tried to tell him to move on in a non-violent direction. And not to take up guns, because people are going to get killed, and that’s how we were able to survive on the island. Every time they would try to set us up, we’d have to have a press conference and say, “Hey, there’s women and children here. We don’t have any guns.” I think Dennis was really extraordinary in terms of his leadership. I think he, you know, was a good guy, but they never started from that point. And I thought it was really disrespectful the way that we were treated for taking Alcatraz; they wouldn’t listen to a woman. I don’t think those guys started out very respectfully, I thought they were just really drunkards and womanizers and I wouldn’t follow them. But a lot of our people did, they didn’t know any different because they were just starting out. People became Indian overnight. They didn’t know or understand that our direction is non-violent, and it’s a peaceful movement. They all got to that point. But unfortunately it didn’t start out that way.
Q2: But what did you think of his thought that “We are the seventh generation”?
LWJ: Well, that’s a known fact. I mean, all Natives understand that. But it took him a while to get there.
JBN: Just so that everyone in the audience knows, there’s a teaching from many different nations, that we are the seventh generation, or that we need to be thinking actually more specifically in terms of seven generations ahead and behind, which some people identify as coming from the Anishinaabe peoples, of which Dennis Banks was one. Some people identify it as coming from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is in what is now upstate New York, Ontario, Quebec — that area. But this notion that we need to be thinking inter-generationally, both back and forward, is one that is common among many Indigenous peoples, and is preached to young people such as myself when we are learning about our culture, here in Oakland as on many reservations, communities, and cities across the country.
Q3: I’m so happy I was able to make it here today. And I want to thank you for all you did — Eloy, you were kind of self-deprecating that you didn’t do enough, but you did a lot and I want to really thank you for that. I’m a teacher-librarian in an elementary school, and we’re hungry for material to bring to our students that is Native-centered and also all different groups, because we don’t want to generalize and we want to honor the land that we’re living on and the people that have lived here for so long. I’m trying to put a question mark on this —
JBN: Here’s a question; where can people get the book?
LWJ: Right out front. [Laughter]
JBN: Awesome. I think you also went on Nick Estes and the Red Nation’s podcast, and they interviewed you recently, right?
LWJ: Yes, they did.
JBN: So there’s a resource — if you go on the Red Nation’s Patreon, you can probably get access to an interview with LaNada there. LaNada also wrote the introduction to the special issue of the Open Space magazine, that we are currently guest editing. I think that’s about a thousand words, so it would be an appropriate length, I think, to assign.
Q4: LaNada, I bought your book, so the answer is probably in the book. But while we’re here, I was interested in the relocation program. Was that a forced program, or there were enticements to move into the city from the reservation?
LWJ: On the reservation, there are no jobs or employment, and as young people, you want to get out and you want to do something for yourself. In the neighboring towns, they took down signs that said things like “No Indians or Dogs Allowed,” but the mentality was still there. So you’re coming up against a lot of racism and then on the reservation there’s all the poverty and the dysfunction. Those are the kind of incentives that make you want to say, “Okay, I’m going on relocation to the city.” I was eighteen and I wanted to go.
Q4: So the government wasn’t forcing you to go? You felt because of the rest of the issues going on, it would just be a better plan for you to get out of there.
LWJ: Well, they just by chance happened to have the relocation program to send you to the cities, and they were taking all the students that were in the government boarding schools and sending them as well. So they were coming from a lot of different directions. I think there were about sixty thousand Native students in the government schools that were sent into the cities as well.
JBN: I think it’s also important for people to know that the Bay Area has one of the oldest urban Native communities in the country. The third oldest urban Indian community center in the country is the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. It was founded in 1954. So at the same time as the government was creating circumstances that pushed Native people to move to cities with the promise of jobs — where there often weren’t jobs — Native people often regrouped in cities, founded things like the Intertribal Friendship House, and then went on to do things like lead the Occupation of Alcatraz. So there’s a quite-complicated history that’s right here in the Bay Area that many people are not aware of.
Q5: Earlier it was mentioned that the Occupation is often an afterthought when it comes to tourism culture on Alcatraz. What are some of the ways that the National Parks Service can better keep this history alive?
EM: One thing that’s going to make them do that is that sign in front: “Indian land” in fresh paint. It’s going to bring up questions: Why is that there? Who did it? How come? And those questions aren’t asked enough. There’s very little signage on the island at all about the Occupation. But they’re starting to do a little more, and they have a bunch of docents now that are getting educated because we’re getting people from reservations coming out and actually talking. Just recently we found out the names of a lot of the Hopi prisoners that were on the island in the early 1800s, because they wouldn’t give up their kids to the government schools. We want to get that kind of information out, so that instead of them saying “them Hopi guys,” we can call them by name, give them that respect that’s due to them. Right now, it’s kind of hard to get in there because they doing a lead abatement program. But for twenty-some years I was getting college kids and other younger students and kids out there, talking to them, giving them the history on Indians and stuff. I think Kanyon‘s in here somewhere She’s doing a coloring book. She’s dealing with a lot of Indian issues, a lot of kids’ issues. It makes my heart glad to see.
JBN: This is one of the things that we’re really thinking about — what’s the legacy of the Alcatraz Canoe Journey project? Alcatraz Island is one of the most visited national parks in the country. 1.4 million people per year. It is largely seen for its history as a federal prison. I think it would be wonderful if it was actually seen for its history as the site of the Occupation. I think that that could be a very powerful symbol, a cultural, living thing that I think fits the Bay Area, honestly, a lot more than a site of incarceration. After we get through wrapping up this project, we’re going to start thinking about what the next phase of that cultural campaign could be. I don’t know if people saw, but they did a project with Ai Wei Wei a couple years ago; it would be wonderful if the park brought in Native artists to do artwork, to carry forward the legacy of the Occupation. Talks, writing, and things like this speaker series are an opportunity to raise awareness and educate the public about this. It’s important to keep in mind, in the same way that the original Occupation was about a symbol and a message, that there is an unquantifiable power to creative ideas like the Alcatraz idea — the Occupation reverberated across Indian country and across the Indigenous world and we think that it should be honored and remembered here in the way that it deserves.
EM: We negotiated also, after the fiftieth anniversary of the Occupation there’s going to be an additional nineteen months where we can come out and have those conversations. Indian groups, young people can come out and discuss social issues. When you see the contrast of that whole prison [against the Occupation], that’s the kind of realization most of us had on either growing up on the reservations, or in those little mining camps that were all around, our experiences were all similar. We went through the Catholic abuses, the homicides, the hazardous materials. Even at Standing Rock, they poisoned the ground that we were on. They sprayed this mineral stuff that they use to kill groundhogs into all that area when we were sleeping. Our sleeping bags were all sprayed prior, before us getting there. That’s the kind of thing that we have to inform everybody about. We’re right here, everything that’s happening to us is happening to you.
Q6: Hi, my brother-in-law was on the island the whole time and he’s from the Northwest. And I worked with Janet McCloud and Ramona Bennett up in the Northwest; what I noticed in the ’70s was when people from the plains would come into town to do things, that there was a huge difference between the culture and the women in Washington and the people that were coming from the Dakotas. And I wondered if you ran into that and sometimes issues arose? Cultural differences between different nations on the island.
LWJ: It was just the differences in people and what their values are and their politics are, it’s out there. You just have to learn to deal with it all and be respectful while at the same time working with them.
Q7: Are you aware of any other organizations or movements, either here in North America, Central America, South America, that give you hope in the work that people are doing?
EM: There’s a lot of them. Francisco Herrera is working with a lot of the migrant kids; he’s been doing a lot of stuff for a long time, and he’s working right now out here in San Francisco with a bunch of the people who have been caged. His organization is doing a lot of good. There’s Barrios Unidos who don’t get a lot of publicity. They do a lot of good work in local communities; sometimes it’s better to have those little organizations, because you know everybody. It would be a whole lot easier for one of your peers to tell you to do something, or ask you to do something, versus a stranger. You’re going to get more cooperation. The easiest way for me to get to know people and get on a really good basis is just to say “hello, how are you?” You know, and I do that a lot.
JBN: LaNada, what about you?
LWJ: Well, I’ve been focusing on trying to get my work done. I also really admire Corrina Gould and all the work that she’s doing and I admire a lot of the younger people out there, speaking up and trying to do things. I think Julian is one of those younger people that’s doing a lot. The Canoe Journey was very impacting. Indians are all lined up. We’re all organized in our own way; we’re not like a card-carrying organization, but we all know each other. We all know what’s happening.
JBN: So I want to thank everybody for coming out for the conclusion of Alcatraz: An Unfinished Occupation, our four-part speaker series. To close this out in the appropriate way — my people come from the Northwest, where the tradition, at least in English, is often called the potlatch, and the idea is that when you have completed a ceremony or a gathering, you give as a sign of having completed this work; also, to give, in many Indigenous communities, is what it really is to be wealthy. I think doing that is a very important thing, especially in a place like San Francisco, a city that has the most billionaires per capita of any in the United States. To close this talk out, I actually wanted to ask Kanyon, if she’s still in the room, who is part of our committee, to join me onstage, as well as my mother, who I know is standing over there. Because we want to recognize a couple of people for their support of this work. As I said, I was merely a question-asker on behalf of the Alcatraz Canoe Journey committee and our canoe family; we took on the name of the Occupy Canoe Family for very obvious reasons. We first wanted to honor and recognize our elders and panelists, Eloy and LaNada. And the way that we wanted to do that was to make sure that they were well-fed and that they went home with a full belly. And so we’re going to give them both some salmon from the Pacific Northwest.
JBN: This is on behalf of our committee. Eloy was part of the committee, so he gets to eat with us all the time. LaNada, for you as well, from closer to where you’re from.
As I said at the beginning, it’s not every day that white folks let you take over their theater to talk about how we took over their island. Well, it was really our island always. But how we took over an island that they thought was theirs. So if Brad Rosenstein from the Presidio Trust could come up here, we’d love to recognize you for all of your work, for having us here and for supporting a grassroots and volunteer project like this. It wasn’t so long ago that it would have been very hard for an organization like ours to do something like this. So thank you so, so much, Brad.
Brad Rosenstein: Thank you, much appreciated.
JBN: And lastly, one of the great joys of working on this project, especially the latter parts which included the speaker series and the special issue of Open Space magazine, was getting to work with SFMOMA and Open Space and their really wonderful editor. Often in our cultures and communities, we give people who have taken care of us a blanket as a sign of the winter coming and wanting you to stay warm. And so if Claudia La Rocco could come up? Claudia has been incredibly supportive of every aspect of this project, especially the public education pieces, and has made an entire issue of Open Space available to writers from the Native community and our project. And so Claudia, we really want to recognize you with this blanket from Eighth Generation. Thank you.
Claudia La Rocco: Thank you.
JBN: Again, Alcatraz is not just an island, Alcatraz is an idea. It’s an idea that got all of you to come out to a talk at one o’clock on a Sunday. It’s an idea that continues to inspire Native people, but also all people. And it’s an idea that we think deserves greater recognition right here in the Bay Area, because it’s a huge part of our history, of the region’s history, of our nation’s history, of Indigenous people’s history, everywhere. And it still matters, it still has a vector. It’s still an idea that can move bodies and change minds. And you all are a testament to that, so thank you so much for coming out.
JBN: And this is not the end of the project. If you keep up with us on the internet, there will be more things in the future. Thank you.
Great transcription; thank you. So many great points made. My mom had been @ Alcatraz during the occupation for about a week late 1969. I hated the fact she was away (I was a baby) but now I understand why …makes me appreciate her & the cause more!
Swedish documentary filmaker Claes Söderquist films at Alcatraz in 1970 for a documentary he first completed in 2012, and made a sequal to in 2013: